Working together to deliver a sustainable healthcare workforce

6 October 2023

In conjunction with our 2024 General Election Manifesto, the Council is releasing a series of blogs which explore the underlying principles and four asks in more depth.

The first blog in the series is co-authored by Ed Hughes, CEO, and James Hallwood, Head of Policy and External Affairs, Council of Deans of Health.

In the midst of the party conference season, the NHS is once again a key priority across the main political parties. This is particularly timely for us at the Council of Deans of Health given the renewed focus on the NHS workforce brought about by the publication of NHS England’s Long Term Workforce Plan and the current challenges around student recruitment.  

The Long-Term Workforce Plan has the potential to transform our health service but delivering its ambitious targets would fundamentally reshape higher education as well. Putting universities at the heart of the plan presents opportunities and trade-offs beyond the immediate faculties and schools educating the next generation of the health workforce. Senior leaders across the education sector face decisions on how to work with the expectations it sets out and the implications at an institutional level.  

Coming as it does amid ongoing debates on the purpose of universities and the value of a degree, the workforce plan cannot therefore just be seen as affecting healthcare. The ambitious expansion in UK-educated healthcare professionals envisaged by the Long-Term Plan could see as many as 1 in 6 students studying a healthcare course if realised. Achieving this is not simply a question of scaling up what we currently have, it will require a huge change in how many universities position themselves, which courses they prioritise, which facilities they invest in, how they work in partnership with others (for example with the college sector), and which prospective students they seek to attract. The Council of Deans of Health is committed to working with our partners both in the health sector and the wider education sector to understand the implications for our members, as well as to firmly communicate to government and the NHS what is needed from them to help universities play their part in achieving the Plan’s aims.  

The Council’s new manifesto paper speaks to the obstacles that need to be overcome to support universities and deliver the plan. When almost 50% of healthcare educators are over the age of 50, possibly the biggest block to expanding healthcare student numbers is the lack of expansion in those teaching our healthcare students – it is a problem DHSC and DfE both need to solve. With new student nursing numbers down 12% in England, and healthcare student attrition higher than many other subjects, we also need both departments to work together to improve recruitment and retention. Similarly, with many healthcare faculties answering to multiple regulators a holistic review, across both sectors, could move to a more streamlined and innovative approach, avoiding replication, overlap and undue burden. Viewing education and training as a joint endeavour between NHS Trusts and their education partners could unlock a more efficient and effective model of placement provision which meets the needs of students and unlocks routes to expand the future workforce. 

Underpinning this is the principle of far better join-up between health and education departments and sectors, both nationally and locally. There needs to be much greater alignment between the incentives in the higher education system – for students and universities – and those which exist in the healthcare system, and a more effective use of the complementary assets of the HE and FE sectors in meeting the skills needs of the current and future healthcare workforce. The Plan may sit as the responsibility of the Health Secretary but much of it can only be achieved with an Education Secretary just as actively involved. 

Too often that relationship between Health and Education remains siloed and when key individuals move on, the institutional memory and impetus for change is too easily lost. There are genuine signs of progress towards a more integrated approach in the short time since the Long Term Plan was published, but we need to keep that momentum, not least as we enter the next student recruitment cycle – the first opportunity to make tangible progress against the ambitious targets in the plan.  

A minister with joint responsibility to both departments could facilitate this shift towards a genuinely shared endeavour. As could joint accountability for the success of the Workforce Plan, with its delivery built into the work of civil servants and ministers across government. Beyond that, the development of the Plan needs to continue to be driven by partnership working across the education and health sectors, and in the truest sense this collaboration needs to be embedded in the way the implementation of the Plan’s goals are developed and then delivered. 

A degree in nursing, midwifery or one of the allied health professions is a gateway to a career of public service, unlocking opportunity for the individual, levelling up communities, and supporting the NHS. Health and education sectors will play their part in, and benefit from this – and the more joined-up they are from the outset, the quicker we can reap those benefits.  

The Council will continue talking to government and all political parties about what is needed to deliver a sustainable healthcare workforce. Education providers – in both HE and FE – now need to consider, at a strategic level, how to grasp the opportunities presented by this expansion of the healthcare workforce, and how in the process of addressing this national imperative, local needs can be met. Questions about where best to meet the education needs, what pathways work for current and future healthcare professionals and their employers, and what partnerships need to be developed by the health and education sectors to better bring the strengths of both sectors together need to be addressed. The Council will continue to be active in these debates, and to facilitate discussions with our members. 

With an upcoming election, the NHS may be everyone’s priority, but delivering the future NHS workforce the UK requires shared responsibility as well. 

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